The Socrates Express : A book review by Bob Morris

The Socrates Express: In Search of Life Lessons from Dead Philosophers
Eric Weiner
Avid Reader Press (August 2020)

How to embrace wonder, face regrets, and sustain hope with an occasional smile

Many of us have “ghosts” that accompany us throughout our lives. Mine include those who have had the greatest impact on my personal growth and professional development…others who remain permanently associated with a single situation or image of special significance…still others who wander in and out of my consciousness, then Poof! they’re gone…probably back into my subconscious, and then later reappearing in whatever fragment I remember of another dream.

Eric Weiner’s ghosts include 18 dead philosophers. Each has given him excellent advice on a specific HOW TO: Marcus Aurelius (get out of bed), Socrates (wonder,) Rousseau (walk), Thoreau (see), Schopenhauer ( listen), Epicurus (enjoy), Weil (Ipay attention), Gandhi (fight), Confucius (be kind), Sei Shonagon (appreciate the small things), Nietzsche (have no regrets), Epictetus (cope), Beauvoir (grow old), and Montaigne (die). Timely and timeless wisdom.

After I read this book the first time, I tried to create my own list of 18 high-impact influencers and attached to each the appropriate advice subject. Weiner’s list is far more interesting than mine so let’s focus on his.

First, these are among the passages that caught my eye:

o Train travel (Pages xiv-xvi, 3-4, 47-48, 77-78, 119-120, 132-134, 143-145, 167-170, and 175-176)
o Mornings (5-7 & 9-13)183-185, 203-204, 221-222)
o Questions & Questioning (15-37)
o Jacob Needleman (16-19, 27-28, & 31-32)
o Plato’s Dialogues (28-31)

o Jean-Jacques Rousseau (39-54 & 41-44)
o Thoreau (58-75, 92-93, & 189-190)
o Author’s attempted emulation of Thoreau (64-69)
o Finding one’s own Walden (73-75)
o Schopenhauer on listening (77-97)

o Pessimism of Schopenhauer (78-84, and 93-94)
o Reality (81-82, 77-78, 122-123 & 259-260)
o Pursuit of pleasure (101-157)
o Epicureanism (101-117 & 225-226)
o Pain (114-116, 124-125, & 228-229)

o Epicurus’s taxonomy (108-110)
o Tom Merle (112-116)
o Author’s friend, Kailash (143-152 & 164-168)
o Gandhi’s approach to fighting (143-168)
o Groundhog Day: Film (204-205, 207-208, & 219-220)

o Reliving life (207-208 & 213-219)
o Existentialism (243-267)
o Aging (243-267)
o Author and daughter Sonya’s trip to France (247-252 and 254-256)
o Montaigne on death (269-283)

In or near the central business district of most major cities, there is a farmer’s market at which (at least until COVID-19) a few of the merchants offered slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I now provide a selection of brief excerpts that suggest the thrust and flavor of Weiner’s thinking:

“From Archimedes’ eureka moment in the bath to Descartes’ masterful fencing to Sartre’s sexual escapades, philosophy has a swift corporeal current running through it. There are no disembodied philosophers, or philosophies. ‘There is more wisdom in your body than in all your philosophy,’ said Nietzsche.” (Page 46)

“Schopenhauer was an Idealist. In the philosophical sense, an Idealist is not someone with high ideals. It is someone who believes that everything we experience is a mental representation of the world, not the world itself. Physical objects only exist when we perceive them. The world is my idea.” (81)

“The Greeks called the state ataraxia, literally ‘lack of disturbance.’ It is the absence of anxiety rather than the presence of anything that leads to contentment. Pleasure is not the opposite of pain but its absence. Epicurus was no hedonist. He was a ‘tranquillist.'” (107)

“‘All truth is crooked,’ Nietzsche said. All lives, too. Only in retrospect do we straighten the narrative, assign patterns and meaning. At the time, it’s all zigs and zags. And white space: breaks in the text that cleave our former selves from some incipient future self. These white spaces look like omissions. They are not. They are wordless transitions, points where the contents of our life shift course.” (209)

“”Beauvoir, I think, overcompensated for Cicero’s sunniness. She traded the Roman’s rose-colored lenses for dark sunglasses. They protected her from harmful rays but also blocked the light. And there is light. Old age need not be the dismal, slow-motion death Beauvoir makes it out to be. It can be a time of great joy and creative output. And the best person to make this case? Simone de Beauvoir.” (254)

I welcome, indeed embrace the pleasure of Eric Weiner’s company with the publication of each new book and cherish the opportunity to wander along with him throughout the geography of his insatiable curiosity. Perhaps he anticipates where it will take him. I seldom can.

Before reading this book, I re-read The Geography of Genius and while doing so was once again reminded of this passage in T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in Chapter 2 (“Little Gidding”):

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all of our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

I think I will be reminded of the Eliot passage again as I re-read The Socrates Express or any other of his. In fact, I am certain of it.

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